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<   No. 2404   2009-08-26   >

Comic #2404

1 Edmond Halley: Mr Newton! A Mr Sinker has published a theory of a reflecting telescope, much like the one on which you are working!
2 Isaac Newton: Curse it! First gravitation, then calculus, now this!
3 Isaac Newton: Can nothing rid me of the scourge of these pretenders to my discoveries?
4 Isaac Newton: If I had my way, I'd be rid of the lot of them: Hooke, Leibniz, and Sinker!

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If Isaac Newton was alive today, he'd be called a nerd. A classic socially maladjusted, loner nerd. He didn't make many friends during his life. He seemed to have a knack for making enemies more easily.

Robert Hooke was a late 17th century scientist (or natural philosopher as they were called at the time), who made significant and lasting contributions to many fields of the emerging sciences of the time. He established the mathematical principle which describes the behaviour of springs, and which is known to all first year physics students as Hooke's Law. He built the best vacuum pumps of the time, which helped Robert Boyle establish Boyle's Law, and several telescopes, with which he made ground-breaking observations of craters on the moon, the rings and moons of Saturn, and double star systems. He made astounding drawings of never-before-seen microscopic structures in animals and plants with his early microscopes, publishing them in one of the most significant scientific books of all time, Micrographia. He was also the first person to propose - publicly at least - that gravity followed an inverse square law.

And here's where he ran headlong into Isaac Newton. Because try as he might, Hooke did not have the mathematical understanding to reconcile this idea of gravity with the, by then well-known, laws of planetary motion derived empirically (i.e. by observation) by Johannes Kepler. The scientists of the time knew how the planets moved, and understood the equations that governed their motions, but they didn't know how that related to the idea of gravity.

In 1684, Edmond Halley took this idea to Isaac Newton, who he had (most probably) never met before and knew by reputation and from an exchange of correspondence about comets. Newton at this time had been holed up at Cambridge University for some years. His scientific work was known by reputation, but he didn't participate in the newly thriving scientific community which met primarily in London. As it turned out, Newton was apparently unaware of the prevailing idea - Hooke's idea - that gravity might be an inverse square law, but that nobody could yet reconcile that with Kepler's Laws.

During their historic meeting, Halley asked Newton a question. He said (paraphrased): Suppose that gravity is governed by an inverse square law operating on the distances between two masses. If so, what would be the resulting path of planetary orbits?

Newton answered: Why, they would be ellipses, in accordance with Kepler's Laws.

When Halley asked Newton how he knew this, Newton replied that he had calculated it some time ago. From his unorganised mass of notes, Newton was unable to produce the calculations, but he promised Halley that he would write them up again and send them to him. And so began Newton's writing on what would eventually turn out to be arguably the most important scientific book ever published: The Principia Mathematica - which has been mentioned in these annotations before.

This incident also set up a bitter rivalry of priority between Hooke and Newton, who never saw eye to eye for as long as Hooke lived, each intent on claiming what they saw as their right to be acclaimed the one who solved the riddle of gravity. Newton happened to outlive Hooke, and by that time was an old and powerful man. He used his power to erase the name of Robert Hooke from the history books and scientific annals of the time, creating the legacy we now are familiar with, of Newton being the shining light in the unravelling of gravity and Hooke being relegated to a minor footnote in first year physics texts about springs.

This was not the only scientific enemy Newton made. He had an even more famous and spiteful rivalry with the great German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, this time over the priority for the invention of calculus. But that's a story for another time.

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 26 August 2009; 03:11:01 PST.
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